Science in Christian Perspective
The Biblical Insights of Michael Polanyi
WALTER R. THORSON
Department of Chemistry
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2G2
From: JASA 33 (September 1981): 129-138.
In my first two talks I have tried to emphasize some fundamental connections between Christianity and the scientific enterprise. These connections are not only historical and philosophical, but spiritual, in the sense that both Christian faith and science are concerned with man's proper and effectual response to an external reality constituted by the sovereign acts of God and sustained by His faithfulness as Creator and Redeemer. Of course the scope and aims of science are very much narrower than the full range of reality encompassed by Christian thought and life, but they do have their proper place within that range. I have argued that the truth potentially accessible to science forms a part of one continuous fabric of truth as a whole, and is not dualistically disjoint from it in some methodological or autonomous fashion; and I have tried to show that the dualistic views are incompatible with the dynamic origins of science in Christian culture and with the continued vitality of scientific tradition. Such a proclamation of the spiritual roots of the scientific enterprise is not merely a pious platitude or vague generality: specifically it requires us to take science as an enterprise far more seriously, and to be ready to pursue some of its lessons far more broadly, than the Church traditionally has been willing to do. This is especially relevant, and I have emphasized it, in relation to understanding the nature of knowledge and knowing-a problem of great importance for Christian theology. (I therefore suggested that those of us who are jointly involved in the practice of these two "outworn creeds" may have valuable contributions to make to this subject.)Objective External Reality
Scientific inquiry and scientific knowing are obviously concerned with what we should call "an objective external reality," or so at least our culture believes today; it illuminates the nature of the problems with which I am concerned in these talks if we remind ourselves that such an assumption was not so obvious in earlier ages, and that it may not be so obvious in the future. The emergence in
The emergence in modern thought of an extreme subjective existentialism has forced us to recognize that a proper Christian theology claims reference to an objective external reality.
modern thought of an extreme subjective existentialism -a fundamentally anti-biblical view of spiritual realities-has forced us to recognize that a proper Christian theology also claims reference to an objective external reality. Therefore a correct understanding of what is meant by "objective knowledge" becomes essential for theology.
Nor is it merely of academic interest to have an understanding of, and commitment to, the value and meaning of science as an activity whose goal is truth. It is directly relevant to a proper Christian response to changes now developing in culture, which threaten both Christianity and the scientific tradition it has nurtured as "outworn creeds." Critiques of the character and value of science can be vitally supportive to Christianity and to the communication of the Christian gospel, provided they are inspired by a sense of the fundamental harmony between science as an activity and Christian faith and life, rather than by some assumed conception of antithesis between them. Conversely, it may ultimately happen that the dynamic creativity and vitality of the scientific tradition can be sustained only within a conscious affirmation of the open-horizoned universe seen by a "naive realist" philosophical view of science-the sort of view held within the Christian cradle of the enterprise-and not by the closed, autonomous, deterministic views developed in some modern philosophies of science. In this connection I recall a very forcible statement by Michael Polanyi, who was talking at the time about the idea of objectivity. He said that if, in the end, we came to view science as a closed, tautological thought system of formal relations between totally impersonal "facts," and an "objective" account of the world as one from which man's personal perception, participation, and perspective had been completely removed, then he himself was convinced that the book of Genesis gives us a more meaningful and objective view of our origins and responsibilities than any such "theory" ever could.
This remark of Polanyi's does not represent a "leap" into existentialism, but a radical reappraisal of the concept of objectivity. Polanyi was keenly aware that science as an enterprise grows from essentially spiritual roots, and, therefore, a right understanding of what science is, as a knowing of reality, must be compatible with, and can even give us some comprehension of, the nature and context of our creaturely awareness of an even greater Objective Reality. Focusing this in biblical terms, I would suggest that such an understanding could help us to grasp that man may hear and be responsible to the voice of God, as the fullest possible exercise of his creaturely powers of rationality and objectivity, not as an irrational denial of those powers by some mystical "leap of faith." This view is in agreement with that attributed to Luther, who denied that faith is essentially mystical, but described it as the normal response of an awakened man to the voice of God. I think Polanyi undertook his studies on a philosophy of personal knowledge as an activity directed toward recovering such an understanding of ourselves and our responsible calling as men.
In calling this paper "The Biblical Insights of Michael Polanyi," I am acknowledging my profound debt to his pioneering and, in many respects, foundational achievements, for a philosophy of personal knowledge. After much thought about the problem of reconciling the joint realities of my scientific and Christian knowledge, I had myself reached the conclusion that a resolution of it must come to grips with the fact that all knowledge, even the knowledge we all most confidently call objective, belongs to persons and must be held by them. It was at that point that I came in contact with Michael Polanyi's writings and discovered how much of the groundwork for a systematic exploration of that idea had been done by him.
Three introductory remarks need to be made at this
Polanyi Does Not Present a Total Philosophical System
Firstly I should emphasize that one should not view Polanyi's discussion of personal knowledge as exhaustive or complete, or as constituting a total system of philosophy in the formal sense. Many mistaken critiques of Polanyi's ideas are based on this misconception. It may be more appropriate to see Polanyi as having initiated or influenced a movement or school of thought. I remarked earlier that Polanyi himself saw his work as only the beginning of a task, to which he expected and indeed invited others to contribute; he conceived of a "society of explorers" pursuing more systematically and in depth the problems and questions raised by the approach he pioneered. Such an attitude, of course, was the only one appropriate to his view of the nature of knowing and discovery; he did not see knowledge as a static formal deposit, but as a dynamic entity inseparable from the process of knowing and learning by persons.
It follows that not all aspects of Polanyi's thought are
equally valid or valuable, and some of his conclusions do
not necessarily follow from an acceptance of the general
framework of a "philosophy of personal knowledge." In
particular, I am not at all satisfied with his description of
religious meaning, which I think falls short of an adequate
idea of its objectivity, and I think his view of Christian faith
fails to take enough account of the biblical doctrines of
revelation and the Word of God. But his conclusions on
this subject are not necessary -consequences of his
epistemology in general, and it is the latter to which I wish
to draw your attention. The most significant of his
epistemological ideas can be fully acquired only through a
careful reading of most of his major work, Personal Knowledge.1 Some general ideas and a sketch of broad
philosophical implications as he interprets them can be
picked up in the shorter books such as The Study of Man,2
but it is really only in Personal Knowledge that a careful
development and rooting of his idea of knowing-especialy in its understanding of science and discovery-is to be
seen. Somewhat complementary to Personal Knowledge
(and, I think, best appreciated after reading it, not before)
is Richard Gelwick's short and readable volume, The Way of Discovery: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael
Polanyi. Dr. Gelwick gives us a good idea of the scope and
potential for development in Polanyi's thought, and incidentally provides an excellent survey of the contributions
of a number of thinkers working within the general context
of the philosophy of personal knowledge. However, it
would be a mistake to read Gelwick instead of Polanyi,
since he is again interested mainly in broad implications,
and does not immerse us in the intimate, first-hand involvement with science as Polanyi does in Personal Knowledge.
It is because readers of this paper are scientists, and can
better understand Polanyi than most people, that I particularly commend Personal Knowledge to you.
Polanyi's Work Not Explicitly Based on the Bible
Secondly, in speaking of "biblical insights of Michael Polanyi," I am not saying that he himself was working
either consciously or explicitly from a base of biblical conceptions as a starting point for his thought. Polanyi was
very much aware of the affinity of his outlook to a Christian faith, and in his writing he makes it clear that real par
ticipation in, and commitment to, the intellectual values and ideals of the scientific tradition ultimately also entails
participation in, and commitment to, the moral values and ideals of the Judaeo-Christian culture which sponsored that tradition. Moreover he shows that this conclusion is no abstraction but is deeply practical-for example, in his
analysis of the siren lure of Marxism for contemporary intellectuals. Beyond that, Polanyi himself lived within a con text of Christian belief and worship, though as I have said was not satisfied with the philosophical account he gives of it in Personal Knowledge.
My reference to the "biblical" character of Polanyi's insights expresses my own identification of some of his
conclusions as being fundamentally congruent to certain important biblical principles. I was brought up in an evangelical family and had the opportunity of a deep ex posure to the content and ideas of Scripture. When I began to think about philosophical problems, or even to cope with general ideas about scientific work, it became very evident to me that certain recurrent themes and ideas, which in Scripture have their immediate application to fundamental spiritual issues, also have a "mirroring" or congruent relevance in relation to questions and problems en countered in man's relation to reality at lesser levels. This is because many of these principles or ideas focus on epistemological issues, that is, the nature of real knowing and its functional manifestation. Because I generally had come to expect that a sound epistemology must ultimately correlate in this way with biblical ideas, I became particularly interested in Polanyi's ideas when I found such a correlation at many essential points, as well as a very realistic account of science and discovery as it is actually experienced.
Polanyi Leaves Open the Possibility of Divine Revelation
Thirdly, concerning the question of revelation: For a biblical theology, no discussion of the problem of know
ledge can be complete without considering this question. Christianity (or the Judaism of the Old Testament) does not claim to be a "natural" religion. Scripture clearly affirms that without a revelation of the Word of God we could
have no significant knowledge of God to discuss. I have not forgotten that by any means, but as I said earlier, I do not propose to discuss this important and difficult topic in these lectures. In fact, although I do have some general
ideas about it, I do not yet have, even for myself, what I would regard as a satisfactory account of the subject.
Is Polanyi's approach to the problem of knowing compatible with a doctrine of divine revelation? As you know,
most philosophy either ignores or even explicitly rules out the possibility of revelation, and I have earlier mentioned
the influence of Descartes on this. In this respect it is most significant that the epistemology of personal knowledge necessarily leaves as an open question, the possibility of a - revelation ofj ust the sort which Scripture affirms: that is, a revelation, not by an "inner illumination" so that we know
Walter R. Thorson is Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. His professional interests are in quantum mechanics, especially its application to problems in the theory of atomic collisions and molecular dynamics. He is a member of the American Physical Society, Canadian Association of Physicists, and the American Scientific Affiliation, and has published about 50 professionalpapers. He is actively interested as a layman in theology and Christian apologetics, especially in topics bearing on the epistemology of science and its relation to religious knowledge. He is a frequent lecturer at Regent College, Vancouver, B. C., where he is Adjunct Professor of the Philosophy of Science. Dr. and Mrs. Thorson and their family reside in Edmonton.
God's thoughts mystically or intuitively, but a revelation in Word, communicated to us in the form of creaturely data in the world in which we live; an Incarnation in flesh and blood, and words, which are from God, but are spoken in language and context accessible to our creaturely powers of intelligence and rationality.
This is not to say that Polanyi explicitly proposed or even adequately considered such a possibility, but his approach to epistemology necessarily leaves it open. He was primarily concerned with man's response to the external world, and the manner in which that response reaches out to comprehend it. For Polanyi, an initial paradigm of knowing is that of the intelligent creature responding to silent clues in his environment, which puzzle him with a problem, and ultimately form for him an awareness of a larger circle of meaning, within which they fit as significant elements; in other words, man as problem-solver. However, Polanyi recognized that with the acquisition of language, man is not only able to create abstract thought as a tool of comprehension, but he also transcends the solitary problem-solver context and begins to participate in shared contexts of meaning and awareness with a community of like-minded and responsible persons. Within this public domain created by articulate language, the possibility then exists that the awareness of new problems and larger realities may be produced not only by "silent clues" in nature itself, but also by the communication of ideas through language. This means not only that we can educate one another, share our conclusions, and pass on our understanding of reality from one generation to the next, but also that we may provoke new insights by a heuristic stimulation of one another in sharing our awareness of problems and their nature-just as I am trying to do here. But then it is obvious that we cannot exclude the possibility that significant awareness of new realities can be created, not only by man's speaking to man, but by the voice of God speaking also in human words to man; and this is how the Scriptures describe God's revelation of Himself to us.
Polanyi was concerned with our human potentiality as creatures to know reality around us, and with the justification for our belief in, and commitment as persons to, levels of intelligent awareness, responsibility, and objective reality transcending a purely material experience of the world. He was trying to show that the biblical idea of man as made in God's image-with all the conceptions of moral as well as intellectual responsibility that may involve-is rationally comprehensible as an objective reality, provided we take a more authentic look at knowing itself. Figuratively I suppose one could say that Polanyi takes us to the Garden of Eden and shows us a man with the potentiality to know spiritual realities objectively and intelligently; but he says nothing about whether God is speaking to the man, or not, and (as far as I am concerned) his later discussion of religious meaning does not come to grips with the question. Of course, insofar as my concern is with a biblical, evangelical theology, I have to go beyond Polanyi, and affirm that God has spoken, and is speaking, in His Word. Ultimately, the evidence that He is there is that He is not silent.
However, the other side of the coin has equally to be considered, and it is this that makes Polanyi's study of knowing relevant to the problem of religious knowledge. If God's revelation of Himself to us is communicated in the form of data in the external world-data of the same kind as we acquire from our experience as creatures of the world around us, and from personal communication in words with our fellow men-then the specifically epistemological issues to which Polanyi addresses himself in the philosophy of personal knowledge have also a bearing on our understanding of what God has revealed. The important fact that a divine revelation is the real source of our knowledge does not eliminate the purely epistemological problems of communication, interpretation, and comprehension, nor does it impart a special status of rational certainty to our knowledge itself. We walk by faith; the truth is divine, but it is held by earthen vessels, human and fallible.Selected Key Principles from Polanyi
Rather than attempt a systematic sketch of "the epistemology of personal knowledge" in the time remaining, I have chosen to select certain key principles, insights, or implications in such an epistemology, which I perceive as being strongly resonant with, or congruent to, principles and insights indicated in Scripture as it deals with our knowledge of spiritual realities. Where these principles appear
Biblical thought provides no basis for the idea of an abstract knowledge of spiritual truths; knowledae is always held by somebody.
in Polanyi's thought, the primary application is to the epistemology of science, and, if you wish, you could take my remarks as implying that Scripture has a great deal to tell us about how "knowing" really works in relation to any level of reality; but, equally well, where (as I think) Polanyi has given us a very accurate appreciation of knowing in respect to science and discovery, the clear illumination so provided can shed a helpful light on our understanding of what Scripture is saying about knowing God in our lives. It is these "resonances" which for me provide the token for confidence that a discussion of knowing as a whole along such lines is the right way to proceed-in spite of many unsolved problems or questions remaining. I do not know of any other epistemology which even comes close to this general approach in terms of such resonance."The Function and Meaning of Theories
Biblical thought provides no basis for the idea of an
abstract knowledge of spiritual truths; knowledge is always
held by somebody, and, moreover, there is always an implicit question raised as to the functional and practical consequences of knowledge for those who have it. St. Paul,
writing to Timothy, contrasts his teaching with the aimless speculations of some whose real motivation was
. whereas the aim of our teaching is love out of
a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith." To
Titus he describes it as "the truth which is in agreement
with godliness;" to the Romans, and others, he constantly
emphasizes the idea that a knowledge of the truth consistently requires obedience, i.e. functional application.
Paul is undoubtedly the "theoretician" of the New Testament; others, such as James and Peter, are even more
outspoken in their insistence that faith and knowledge produce practical effects. Yet it would be a mistake of the most
naive sort to assume that theology is of no importance. In
terms of specific content, logical structure, sheer complexity and richness of detail, Christian teaching goes far
beyond any other system of religious beliefs. This fact is
not an incidental result of the mingling of the gospel with
the Hellenistic intellectual tradition, but is a feature also
of New Testament teaching-Paul really was a "the
One of the dominant themes of the Pastoral Letters to
Timothy and Titus is the idea that specific doctrine is the
basis for practical living, and no one who has a serious acquaintance with the major epistles of Paul would fail to
recognize the systematic and detailed character of his theology-or the fact that this theology is the real basis for
Christian practice. It is only very immature believers, and people who have no personal knowledge of Christianity,
who propose that the practice of Christianity may go forward without a grasp of its doctrinal "theory." Moreover,
just as in science, the more fully developed our experience of reality becomes, the more complex and structured and subtle is the theory that goes with it. In my first talk I mentioned the joint emphasis of evangelicalism (as a vital form of Christianity) on a highly specific theological content and on the need for personal application in practicing commitment. Difficulties for Christianity always arise when theology is divorced from practical function-whether
emphasis is placed on theoretical or experiential elements.
In science we also know this tension between theory and
experiment, whether we look at debate in the history and
philosophy of science, or look at the practitioners of science. Most of us know examples of the theoretician who
endlessly manipulates sterile formalisms without physical insight, or the experimentalist who mindlessly measures and
observes without having any clear understanding of where he is going!
What is the function and significance of a theory?
Michael Polanyi opens his exposition of the epistemology
of personal knowledge by showing us how belief in, and commitment to, scientific theories as potentially true, has
always been a crucial element in scientific discovery. Futhermore, he emphasizes that in most instances what
commends a theory to us in the first place is the sense of a rational holism it is able to convey. At some points one
might almost think that Polanyi is a rationalist, intuitionist, or philosophical idealist, because he so heavily emphasizes
the determining role played by theories in the process of actual discovery; and he documents that emphasis very well. Yet, as the discussion continues, it becomes obvious that what is important is not merely the theory itself as an abstraction, but the fact that there are persons who seriously entertain it as a way of looking at the world; it is their ac tions within the framework of commitment which bear fruit. Polanyi is saying that even in science there is no such thing as knowledge in the abstract; it is knowledge only when someone personally holds it and acts consistently with the integrating vision of the world it provides.
Polanyi's answer to the question about the function of a theory emerges when he links our personal exercise of judgment and perceptive abilities in the practice of science, to the practice of inarticulate, perhaps unspecifiable skills and arts. What is commonly identified as "knowledge" is merely the articulate part of what we really know; underneath the surface is a whole domain of tacit knowledge, involving our personal participation in a skillful but inarticulate performance. Knowledge must always be personal because we can never completely isolate the articulate from the tacit components. Knowing is a skill, an art, and its confirmation and justification necessarily entail its functional application in further skillful performances relating to the reality known.
Theoretical systems function by integrating for us the particulars of our experience into a meaningful whole, whose global significance is revealed not by the particulars themselves but by the relationships which they take on within the system. By manipulating the conceptual symbols in the theory, we can "manage" an understanding of these relations and of the whole, just as a map enables us to "manage" a new geographical environment. Theories are linguistic and conceptual tools; we indwell them for the purpose of envisioning a complex reality, just as we indwell a hammer for the skillful performance of nailing with it. In such an "indwelling, " we do not pay our focal or direct attention to the tool itself; rather, by committing ourselves to it, we see through it to the aspect of reality it brings into focus for us, just as we "feel," when competently hammering, not the end of the hammer in our hand, but the head of the hammer hitting the nail. But a tool must really be appropriate to the reality of focal concern; if it isn't, our commitment to it will not lead to success but to a confidence destroying disfunction. I may be deeply committed to my pair of pliers in lieu of a hammer, but the fact that it is not a hammer may turn my commitment into bruised fingers.
Time does not permit me to range over the many insights and ramifications which Polanyi develops in linking our conceptual and linguistic skills and the abstractions they enable us to create, to our personal participation in the performance of inarticulate skills; but I think this approach makes more sense than any other in explaining the paradoxical fact that while, on the one hand, knowledge can only be knowledge when it is functioning within persons who hold it or indwell it to produce practical consequences as the end result, yet on the other hand a valid theoretical understanding is of determining importance in the direction and development of function. Logical empiricism fails to grasp this, since it supposes that empirical facts, approached blindly, provoke theories. Looking back at this same tension between Scripture's insistence on the aim of knowledge as function in persons, and its primary emphasis on the need for a valid and adequate doctrinal basis, we can now appreciate that the two emphases necessarily go together because they are simply a realistic account of how it is that persons can acquire a functioning relationship to an external objective reality.
No doubt it will have occurred to some of you that this view seems rather close to the "operationalist" philosophical views of Mach, Duhem, Bridgman, etc., views which I have criticized Professor Clark for holding. Part of my answer to that would be to repeat again my previous critique, namely, that a claim that "a theory can never really be true"-even potentially-undermines in a subtle fashion the nature of our commitment to it -l ike talking (as Paul Tillich did) about "the God behind God." Then I also pointed out that ontologically we are really obliged to call "true" that which has an ultimate functional authority for us, even though we know we run the risk of being mistaken. But now I will go further and point out that, after all, "what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." If we accept operationalism as an adequate epistemology of science, then I can see no reason why we must not accept it as an adequate epistemology of Christian faith and life; I have just shown the close parallel of epistemological function between the two. It is because I do not find operationalism acceptable as a view of Christian theology and its role in our lives, that I abandoned operationalism as a view of science, and it was my encounter with the thinking of Michael Polanyi that finally forced me to that conclusion.Faith and Commitment as Dynamic
"Faith is the substance of things hopedfor, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11: 1). Familiar as this verse is, we tend to let it roll smoothly off our tongues rather than think carefully about what it says, which at first seems either very surprising or else nonsensical. To retranslate: "Faith brings to substantial, actual realization things that are at first only hoped for; it creates a clear and convincing focus on things we cannot yet see." The first half of the sentence sounds perilously close to the view of some fiveyear-olds that "if you believe in something hard enough it will come true," and the second half sounds like "if you believe in something long enough, after awhile you will be quite sure about it." We laugh at this-because we all know just how silly we should be to trust such naive maxims. Cheer up; the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is no fiveyear-old. Yet I never really felt intellectually satisfied about this text until Michael Polanyi showed me what it really means by describing just how this principle functions as the dynamic element in scientific discovery (oddly enough, he never seems to have referred explicitly to this remarkably appropriate text.)
To make it clearer for all us academics, here is a third, technical rendering: "the indwelling of a true theory by persons responsibly committed to it leads functionally to the eventual manifestation and confirmation of realities which at first are only vaguely intimated, or but poorly perceived." If you read Personal Knowledge, you will find a thoroughly fascinating account of precisely this remarkable phenomenon. I referred in an earlier talk to the story of the Copernican revolution, which illustrates the principle very well. For those who were committed to it, the Copernican hypothesis provided an integrating vision of the heavens; it was only within the framework of such commitment that previously unanticipated elements could be brought into clear focus, and the relevant activities conceived and sustained, which ultimately brought the truth of that
If we accept operationalism as an adequate epistemology of science, then I can see no reason why we must not accept it as an adequate epistemology of Christian faith and life.
vision to its full manifestation. For more than 150 years until Newton's laws of motion were discovered-it could not be said convincingly that the factual evidence confirmed the Copernican, and refuted the Ptolemaic, view. Yet during that long period faith in the validity of the Copernican hypothesis sustained a chain of labors which finally vindicated it.
The point, of course-one to which the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is very sensitive-is that manifesting a hidden truth in hostile or indifferent circumstances is a laborious, time-consuming, and costly business, and one will not be able to sustain the effort required, unless he really is committed to a serious belief that the reality in question exists. In my own career as a theoretician I have experienced the validity of this principle in several specific problems, where belief in the existence of a certain type of solution to a physical or mathematical problem provoked imaginative responses or new insights, and sustained long periods of laborious and often fruitless search until at length one line of work ended in success. I am sure many others of you have also had similar experiences.
Of course, our Scripture text about faith takes it for granted that what is being believed in is true. It is certainly not saying (as the five-year-old does) that faith as such produces results, but that it is faith which sustains fruitful activities, when it is directed toward valid objects-and, without such faith, even a true theory remains barren and ineffectual. Again, it is partly for this reason that we must entertain of any serious theory that it is potentially true. In science, as in religion, I hope there is none among us who really believes that "to travel hopefully is better than to arrive;'" as C.S. Lewis acutely said, "If that were true, and were known to be true, who would ever start out upon a journey?"
It would be very fascinating if we had time to think a bit about spiritual and intellectual hope. According to our text, "things hoped for" are antecedent to faith, and perhaps we could infer they are in some manner stimulants to faith.
"Hope" in the New Testament does not mean wishful thinking, but a strong sense of anticipation of unheralded and certainly unspecifiable possibilities. Spiritual hope is not ultimately directed toward a seen object ("hope that is seen is not hope"); it is properly and ultimately hope in God.
In his discussion of the power of a scientific theory to call forth our respect and commitment, Polanyi points out that we exercise only partly specifiable criteria of rational beauty or excellence, which we are able to apply to a large extent tacitly or inarticulately-and, we expect the truth to be beautiful. We use words such as "symmetric," "elegant," "fruitful," etc., to convey our sense of appreciation to our fellows, but these adjectives will not stand up to logical scrutiny. Our sense, and the collective tradition, of beauty-and hence the character of our tacit criteria-is capable of change and development; but unmistakably it is a sense of beauty which moves us to prefer some theories to others, and even to heuristically commit ourselves to them, even though as yet we have no clear conception of their consequences. Now it is a surprising thing that this general expectation regarding reality is not disappointed far more often than it is rewarded, but on the contrary it seems to have a real power to evoke creative vision within the human mind. I wonder if here, too, we may really be talking about hope? However, I am only speculating!Commitment and Doubt, Proof and Manifestation
Why is it that Scripture is so little concerned with rational proof and rational certainty? The usual answer is that the cultural mind-set of the biblical writers does not really focus on the concepts in question. This is obviously quite true, but at the level of our present discussion we are entitled to think that there are also reasons of substance: after all, divine revelation was given in the context of such a culture, and, moreover, we may assume that revelation had a profound influence upon that culture, as is evident in the Old Testament. Furthermore, sound scholarship should help us get the idea out of our heads that the Hebrews were fanciful romantic-visionary types to whom such concepts as proof and argument would never have made any sense. On the contrary, when we compare them with the peoples among whom they lived, and against whose cultures the religion of the Old Testament was in constant opposition, the Hebrews seem rather to be a most prosaic, hard-headed sort of people, skeptics who think gods are just blocks of wood, who do not believe the natural world is the body of God, and who are inclined to be impressed by material evidence here and now and by such things as the historical fulfillment of prophecy-in short, just the sort of people who are interested in "proof."
I believe the substantial answer to the question is that there is a demonstration of objective reality which is more complete and more convincing than formal or rational proof, something I shall call "manifestation." The biblical view, I think, is that a genuine and complete solution to a problem regarding objective reality cannot merely be thought, it must be manifest in concrete function and in a transformation of the world which displays that function. Any purely abstract solution is thus, by its very nature, not the reality it attempts to describe, but a signpost or symbol which points beyond itself to implied function and consequences. I specifically exclude pure mathematics and formal logic from this general claim. These subjects are peculiar because, at one level, they are their own manifestations; and at another level, we do not know whether or not they have the reference function in respect to some other, unknown reality.
To develop the idea of manifestation remember that in the domain of skills we encounter objective realities which are not formally proved, but only manifested. While we think in many cases that an abstract explanation may be possible, our conviction that the reality in question exists, in no way depends on this; it stems from the experience of manifestly skillful performances. Glassblowers, for example, are paid very good wages to practice their skills and they manifest very clearly that they have a real, objective knowledge of what can be done with glass, by achieving it. It is simply nonsense to say that such knowledge is not objective-though it is certainly personal knowledge!
At the other end of the spectrum we have the manifestation of spiritual realities with which Scripture is concerned (in this discussion I have the convenience of assuming your tacit agreement that these are objective realities, too). Scripture continually reminds us that the convincing demonstration of a knowledge of God is manifest in a person's character and the transformation of life in himself and his environment. Psalm 1, for instance, is a poetic celebration of this principle. It appeals by analogy to a homespun, familiar example, comparing the mighty tree that can grow from the life within a seed on one hand, with the transience of chaff, which is merely the outer husk of what was once potentially an equally vital life. Here the Psalmist tells us that we are dealing with objective reality, not with some inner, private experience; he is telling us not about the feelings of a man rooted in God, but that such a person is in fact a reality in the landscape, recognizable, and recognized, by others.
In our culture, the achievements of science itself in the transformation of modern life are the clearest possible illustration of a manifested solution to a real problem. In my essay "The Spiritual Dimensions of Science"4 I tried to dramatize this in certain ways. One way is to imagine the dialogue which might ensue between a contemporary physicist and a medieval philosopher, assuming we could transport the latter to our own time and show him all our beautiful machines which function as embodiments of physical principles. There are two points to make: (a) We may well feel that there are potential meanings to the question "what is the nature of physical things?" which we have in no way even considered in science, but I am pretty certain that our visiting philosopher would consider that we have an objectively real knowledge of the answer to that question-an answer demonstrated in our manifest authority over physical phenomena. However, (b) we would probably have a very tough time getting him to understand our idea of natural or physical laws. He would be tempted to ascribe our powers to magic or occult, immediate knowledge of some sort. We would have to work hard to persuade him that they are direct applications or expressions of a systematic, highly structured true understanding, which we find it possible to talk about in a new discourse of remarkable depth and complexity. I rather imagine that in the end we would explain what a physical theory is by epistemic analogy with the only highly structured theoretical system our visitor would be acquainted with, namely, Christian theology.
This last point again makes it clear that the biblical preference for manifestation rather than formal proof is not equivalent merely to a primitive pragmatism or to some sort of operationalist philosophy. The difference lies in the view taken of the significance and role of theories, which I talked about earlier. Although manifestation is the ultimate goal of all knowledge, this does not imply that theories are irrelevant or can be dispensed with, or are arbitrary conveniences made up to fit the facts a posteriori. On the contrary it is precisely their claim to be true and faithful accounts of an objective reality which is at stake, and which is vindicated by the ongoing development of manifestations based on that reality. Scripture points us to a world to come in which "knowledge" shall cease, or "come to an end," because we shall know even as we are known, but it is equally clear that, for our present creaturely hold on spiritual realities, articulate, rational, structured theoretical knowledge is indispensable, a knowledge communicated in words and language. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. . ." says Paul to the Colossians.
Michael Polanyi's understanding of the role of theories and indeed of all articulate communication is compatible with this scriptural outlook. Through the means of language man, who seems otherwise a creature like the other creatures, out of the ground, not only extends his creaturely grasp on the environment in which he is placed, but shares and sustains this in the community of his fellows. Language involves the same skills of perception and manipulation that appear in the inarticulate knowledge we have, but by combining these skills in the domain of abstract symbols, allows us to become aware, and to sustain awareness, of larger wholes and contexts of meaning in which we are also placed. This is the effective means by which man's ascendancy over the dumb creatures is achieved; but it is also at the same time his introduction to entirely new dimensions of responsibility-objective realities to which man is not only able but obligated to reply in both word and actions.
Man's interest in the truth arises because he consciously recognizes his freedom to choose. He has learned that when he chooses responsibly according to the light of what is seen abstractly as true, he may acquire the power to direct the future to ends otherwise not attainable, to express his freedom in creative and open ways. This freedom is not autonomous or arbitrary; paradoxically, it is a freedom which comes from obedience and commitment to the truth. Man is placed in a setting of realities not of his own making, and over which he has, a priori, no mastery; yet, by being responsible to the authority of a true vision of these realities, he fulfills his creative potential and renders actual, by manifestation, things which otherwise would not appear or come into existence. In this process, it is his responsible commitment, or faith, which is the dynamic element: this faith is directed consciously to a reality, which is outside himself and is therefore objective. The concept of the true or the objective is nothing more-but also nothing less!-than the declaration that there are, in fact, realities to which we and all our fellow men can and should consistently, collectively, and responsibly be committed as the authority for our choices, thought, and actions.
It follows that the claim that any articulate statement or proposition-let us call it "P"-is true, is an affirmation that we have manifested, are manifesting, or are committed to act and choose so as to manifest, the reality of which "P" speaks. The reference to truth emphasizes the universal character or objectivity of that reality, that is, we place our responsibility also on our fellows. But the statement "P is true" is not itself another statement, "Q", whose truth or falsity can be determined (except in certain simple mathematical and logical systems, and then merely as a formal statement of tautological consistency). "P is true" is really functionally equivalent to the statement "I believe P," and there is not the slightest additional "proof" I can bring to show that "P" is true, apart from the responsible thoughts, words, choices and actions consistent with "I believe P"-and which, presumably, I am already engaged in, in manifesting the reality of which "P" speaks. That is the limit of my creaturely powers and responsibilities.
Such a conclusion is not a despairing proclamation of "the final subjectivity of all claims to know." On the contrary, it is the affirmation that a knowledge which is personal can nevertheless be objective. When we are forced to recognize that all the knowledge we possess, even of the most incontrovertible objective realities, involves our personal participation in responsible commitment, then it is absurd to conclude that objectivity knowledge cannot exist; the proper conclusion is the opposite one, i.e., that "objectivity" is not the removal of personal involvement but its responsible exercise, and this was the conclusion that Polanyi pointed to.
In passing I'd like to draw your attention to an attitude which has currently become fashionable, almost to the point of being a cliche', in academic and literary circles; I even saw a reference to it in a horribly confused article in our local newspaper the other day. This is the view that even the claims of science to objectivity have been debunked, and the usual source for this view is taken to be the writing of Thomas Kuhn;5 in fact the word "paradigm" has become a badly overworked buzz-word among pseudointellectuals lately. No doubt people in the liberal arts have their own reasons for resenting the long age of idolatry of science and are happy to be iconoclasts, but it really displays a gross ignorance of science and the progress in manifestation of scientific knowledge to assert such an extreme and absurd conclusion. The problem which Kuhn really poses for us is the fact that the knowledge we actually possess in science-which is assuredly "objective" - was reached by a heuristic, often revolutionary process which has entailed passionate personal involvements and commitments. However, it is Polanyi, and not Kuhn, who has
The claim that any articulate state ment or proposition is true, is an affirmation that we have manifested, are manifesting, or are committed to act and choose so as to manifest the reality of which this statement speaks.
drawn the proper conclusions from that fact. (In fairness to
Kuhn, I'd note that he calls himself not a philosopher but
an historian of science, and that he carefully refrains from the silly conclusion that such knowledge is not objective.) It is a bizarre absurdity to hear some sophisticate say at a party, as is common nowadays, that the claim of science to objectivity has been destroyed-when all around him in the room are the concrete manifestations of that knowledge in devices and material creations upon which he implicitly relies! Surely it is the evidence of a deep spiritual perversion that modern man prefers to affirm the total subjectivity of which I referred only briefly in the illustration of indwelling all his ideas rather than grapple with the religious implications of a knowledge which, though personal, is nevertheless still objective, and potentially true. If we treasure the values of the scientific tradition at all, we must regard such attitudes with an implacable hostility.
We have to recognize that the theoretical possibility of doubt always exists whenever there is knowledge-even for our most soundly practiced commitments. The awareness of a potential risk is the necessary complement of all true knowing. This is quite obvious in the case of a skillful performance: the more elaborate the achievement in view, the greater also the risk, and the awareness of risk, entailed in its fulfillment. This helps us to understand the fact that it is modern Western man, manifestly in possession of far more objective knowledge about the material world than any other civilization previous, who is also far more obsessed with the intellectual problem of doubt; to some extent, a slightly puzzled frown is the inevitable accompaniment to the solving of real problems! But-as Scripture continually affirms-it is faith, and not doubt, which forms the positive dynamic in knowing and discovery, and Polanyi clearly shows us that this is the case in science.
Attention is necessarily focussed on what is meant by
responsible commitment. Polanyi believed that the inten
tion to be "responsible," both individually and as members
of a human community, was the only criterion which we and
truth, and he speaks a great deal about what it means to be intelligibility to man of the creation in which we find
responsible in commitment; time doesn't permit me to ex plore his comments on the subject. However, let us note two points:
"Responsible commitment" may be seen as a necessary, but not a sufficient, criterion for true knowledge. Polanyi belongs to that philosophical tradition which seeks to iden tify necessary conditions for our knowledge to be objective but does not allege that we can possess sufficient conditions; the best we can do is manifest the truth we believe we have. I think this view is biblical because it accepts our creaturehood.
Secondly, important understanding of what responsible commitment is like is privided by a more careful study of the ideas of indewlling and of focal and subsidary awareness, which Polanyi developes at some length, and to which I referred only briefly in the illustration of indwelling a tool, such as a hammer, for the purpose of achieving a task. Our commitment to a tool is always given to it for the purpose of reaching through it to a reality or achievement beyond it. In the case of a theoretical system, I indwell it as a means to reaching beyond it to reality which I believe to be there. My commitment is never merely to the system itself as an object of focal attention; rather I entrust myself to the vision of reality the theory creates for me, in a heuristic effort to see "what is truly there." Certainly one meaning of responsibility-in-commitment is the notion that if the result of such commitment is a continued fumbling, or a series of unremittingly contradictory experiences, one may be led to abandon the theory in favor of alternatives with more evident tokens of promise. The man who goes on hammering with pliers when a hammer lies nearby is not merely mistaken, but irresponsible, in his commitment. Unfortunately-as Kuhn has certainly shown-the history even of science is all too full of such irresponsibility.
But there is a theological implication in this conception
of responsible commitment as a reaching through and
beyond our ideas: to what-or to Whom-is our commitment then finally directed?
The scientist of the simple-minded, naive realist sort will surely reply: to that which is really "objectively true," the "objective reality," on which my knowledge seeks constantly to lay hold, and by the experience of which it must necessarily change and develop. The practising faith of science is a faith ultimately in the order, consistency, intelligibility to man of the creation in which we find ourselves placed, and at its purest that can never be faith in man but faith in a dependable Creator.
But equally, the Christian will surely reply that his faith is
not in his theological picture of God, important as that is to supporting his real knowledge of God.
C.S. Lewis put it so well: "I pray, not to whom I think Thou art, but to Whom Thou knowest Thyself to be." Faith, though vitally ex pressed in our indwelling of doctrinal knowledge, and re quiring theological and rational logical structure for its pro per function, always reaches out beyond all theology: it is faith ultimately in God Himself.
Some of you will probably feel that I have painted far too rosy a picture of knowing, that I have not made adequate
Secondly, important understanding of what responsible allowance for the tragic effects of sin in producing error,
commitment is like is provided by a more careful study of falsehood, and delusion. This is probably true, but as I
the ideas of indwelling and of focal and subsidiary have been writing this essay, two incidents from the Old
awareness, which Polanyi develops at some length, and to Testament have been running through my mind. I think
they reveal the attitude of Scripture to the question of how, and whether, truth wins out over error, when there is a human being prepared to be responsibly committed. The first incident is that grim old story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, and for me the key phrase is Elijah's emphasis on manifestation: "And the God who answers by fire, let Him be God." The second story is the account of Moses and the magicians of Egypt before Pharaoh. The possibility of a limited success based on false premises is acknowledged: "the magicians also cast their rods on the ground, and they also became serpents. But Moses' rod ate up their rods." For me that remark in its humor and subtlety conveys something of the light-hearted confidence and freedom with which the Christian can approach the discovery of truth whether he is learning it from the study of creation or from careful attention to God's Word. We believe that for those who really want it to, the truth will become manifest in due course.
1Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London (1958); paperback ed., Harper Torchlight Books, New York (1966).
2Michael Polanyi, The Study ofMan, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London (1958).
3R. Gelwick, The Way of Discovety: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi, Paperback ed., Oxford University Press, New York (1977).
4W.R. Thorson, "The Spiritual Dimensions of Science," an essay in Horizons of Science: Christian Scholars Speak Out, C.F.H. Henry, Ed. Paperback edition, Harper and Row, New York (1978).
5T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1962).